Chapter 5 – Tutorial

Pushing his dish to the side and standing up, Ares turned to the creatures skulking in the brush. White teeth exposed, Four hulking quadrupeds were slowly prowling towards the small camp. Their bodies were long; too long in comparison with the wolves he knew of, and their legs looked awkwardly thin. Their dainty appearance did nothing to diminish the long fangs that stuck out of their maws like needles. They sniffed the air, shifting their attention from Ares onto Sloan — and, more importantly, the remains of food in the pan.

The smell must have lured them, thought Ares, evaluating the beasts as they approached. Of course, he had no familiarity with animals — having been isolated from such things for most of his life. He should have been terrified. He should already be dead, too. Right now, these things were what they were, and instead of focusing on what he could not do, Ares began preparing himself for the first fight of his life.

The four wolf-kin did not head straight for them, but instead traced circles around the camp, keeping their eyes trained on Ares. A strange hint of joy hit him, as he watched the wolves show so much wariness of him. It was not so much an emotion as it was an instinct surging up from within; a desire for bloody war and conflict. He had already identified several changes to his own demeanor, but this was by far the starkest and most improbable change. The others might be explained away with a sudden excitement from being able to move freely and experience an entirely different world, but Sam had never been bloodthirsty. Ares, on the other hand, standing before the wolves, craved the exhilaration of combat.

Slipping into a combative stance was almost seamless. Spreading his legs a little further apart, lowering his center of gravity, and raising his arms up in front, Ares watched his opponents carefully. The wolves were still careful, waiting to fully encircle him before they acted. This, Ares could easily see from the onslaught of information fed to him by his HUD. Small tags evaluated how likely each wolf was to attack at any given moment, and scans ran concurrently to identify weaknesses and openings on each of them.

Even their strategy of surrounding their prey was useless before Ares. As the first opponent made it to his back, Ares’ view extended as well, displaying the scenery behind him along with the enemy. This was the potential of a mechanical body — unlimited by biological restraints.

With this advantage, he knew exactly who would be the first of the wolves to attack. From the right, it came. Growling, it set off at at sprint, jumping at him from a distance. It was not aiming for a bite, but to knock him out of balance. Following the advice displayed on his HUD, Ares sidestepped and spun with the attack. As the wolf passed close-by, he punched it in the ribs, using the force of his spin to devastating effect.

The sound of cracked ribs was unmistakable, and the wolf’s yowl of pain as it fell upon the ground was heart wrenching — if one owned a heart to begin with. The immediate defeat of the first attacker made the other wolves halt their movements. Seeing this, Ares took the opportunity to attack. Rushing past Sloan, who had raised the pan as his preferred weapon, Ares closed in on his first target.

Though clearly surprised, the wolf showed no sign of fear. It bared its teeth and met his charge in a sprint. Aiming for his leg, it jumped at him. Ares decided to give the wolf his leg, with a little extra added to it. Kicking as hard as he could, he smashed the wolf’s open maw. Teeth shattered when it tried to bite down and, with the added kinetic force in the kick, its jaw was forcefully dislocated when the leg continued into the back of its throat.

Ares’ face was immovable, but the successful strike rewarded him with overwhelming delight. The lust for blood coursed through his mechanical veins, setting him mind ablaze with the desire to tear these lower lifeforms to pieces. His momentary exultation led him to forget about his back. While his attention was elsewhere, the two healthy wolves attacked; one aiming for the right shoulder, the other for the opposite arm.

Without the time to dodge, Ares allowed his left hand to be caught between the wolf’s powerful fangs. He leveled a counter-blow to the one on the right, backhanding it in the side of its head, crushing its skull. At the moment of its death, he noted a slight green shimmer pass between himself and it.

With his mechanical strength, these pathetic creatures were no match. While the wolf he had kicked in the teeth slunk back, whimpering, Ares raised his left arm where the last healthy wolf was holding on for dear life.

Damage at 93%

He felt the pain in his hand only as a numb reminder, suppressed by the revel of combat. The wolf eyed him, growling as it tried to bite harder. It was no use; he would not be held down by this measly amount of pain. He had suffered pain much worse than this before. He grabbed the wolf by the throat and squeezed, crushing the vital path of breath.

The wolf’s eyes rolled back, and he let it go. It fell upon the ground, choking to death. Another cloud of green mist was released, and was sucked up by the blue markings on his body. The wolf with the dislocated jaw was still able to move. Fighting through its pain, it turned and ran towards the forest thicket.

Want to run? The desire for more blood was overpowering. Ares set after it, his face tracing the hint of a grin. His face that would otherwise not move, had responded to the fight, settling itself into a more and more sinister expression. Though the quadruped should have had the advantage in speed, its injury caused it difficulty, and Ares was fast.

Unleashing the full might of his mechanical legs, he caught up with the beast in an instant. Using his hand like a dull blade, he hit the escaping creature in the neck, crushing its neck. Suddenly losing the ability to control its legs, the wolf continued forward, but fell on its face and slid a short distance. Coming to a halt, its empty eyes looked upon the world no more. Even at a distance, the green sheen appeared, passing towards- and into him through his markings.

Only one left, now, he thought, turning back towards the camp. The first wolf, which ribs he had cracked, lay helpless on its side. Desperately attempting to regain its feet, it looked at its supposed prey with an almost human expression of fear. As the beat of bloodlust slowly rescinding, with the waning battle, Ares felt almost sad about how short a time it had taken. These sensations were alien to him, and seemed more like instincts than feelings. It was as if the body he was in now could only feel something when in battle.

His grin had faded as well, turning his face back into an immovable mask. Even with effort, he was unable to move a single facial muscle on his own, despite his control over the rest of his body. As these alien sensations receded, Ares felt himself return to, relative, normalcy.

Walking over beside the wounded animal, Ares stared down at his prey — at what he had done. Sam would have been horrified at the display of violence. But Sam is dead, thought Ares, crouching down and grasping the wolf’s head, forcing it to stare directly into his eyes. Sam wasn’t strong enough to survive.

The wolf looked at him, no longer with fear. It had accepted death in the face of a superior foe, now only awaiting the final strike. Faced with such conviction, Ares hesitated. Would strength be enough?  These wolves were surely strong, compared to other creatures of the forest, and yet, when faced with a superior force, they had all been broken by him; by the machine.

That lust for battle — this craving for combat — might it not lead him to the same fate?

What say you, wolf? Is strength enough to survive in this world?

Of course, the wolf did not answer; it merely stared back, quite possibly frustrated with his hesitation. If he was going to kill it he should just do so, it seemed to say. Very good. I think we agree, he thought, finally crushing the wolf’s throat with his other hand, ending its life. A last stream of green mist passed into him.

Strength is not enough; I need control.

As such, the first task would be to reign in the machine. He could not fall into such a state of bloodlust that he might lose the ability to make sound judgments. This was the wisdom Sam provided; the wisdom of someone who had fought his entire life to survive for just a few more breaths.

Sam lives on in me, as does his will. His will and my strength; only with these together can the world be mine, he thought, still intent on conquering all around him — as it should be. Of course, in the middle of such existential musings, the console broke in and distracted him with a highlighted message.

Damage is reaching critical levels

  • Please initiate self-repair protocols

Very well, better do as it says, he thought, turning back towards the camp. Sloan still stood exactly where Ares had left him, holding a pan up as his weapon. His eyes were trained on Ares, as if he expected the machine to take him out next; as if he thought he could defend himself against Ares if he decided to do so.

Picking up the notepad where he had left it, Ares scribbled a message and showed it to the halfling. “You want me to deal with the corpses?” Sloan asked, still holding up his instrument as a blunt weapon expert. Ares nodded and wrote another message.

“Ahh, of course, I see,” said Sloan, finally lowering his weapon, “Well, I do know how to skin and prepare them, but if you want the meat to keep I’ll need more materials than I currently possess… I can’t really do anything about their pelts either; curing takes too long for it to be immediately useful.”

“Just prepare as much meat as you can, I will eat what will not keep raw,” Ares wrote, then sat down before the fireplace and followed the advice of his console. Initiating the self-repair protocol was easy and, as soon as the process began, he felt as if a heavy stone was slowly being lifted off his chest. Though he had initially been overcome by the pain of the body, he had quickly acclimatized to it. Now that it was being repaired, his mechanical nervous system rewarded him with a soothing sensation.

Finally, after a long while, the process halted with the message:

 Energy levels have fallen below 10%

  • Insufficient energy to proceed with full recovery
    • Energy required for full recovery: 76%
    • Damage is currently at 63%

Apparently it took quite an amount of energy to restore the unit once damage reached critical levels. Ares mentally noted this for future reference. Everything was so new and alien to him, and he would have to do some in-depth experimenting later to figure out what his new body could survive. For now, he was just glad to be alive. Mentally he allowed himself a sigh of relief, before he noticed the console flashing once again with new text.

User Lifeforce has reached the limit

  • Compressing…

Congratulations: user level has increased to level 1

  • Primary functions restored:
    • Physical module
    • Equipment
    • Skills
    • Abilities

Modules have improved according to performance

  • Physical module is restored, scanning…
    • Module units found:
      • Strength: 25
      • Agility: 10
      • Speed: 19
  • Scanning processing module…
    • Synaptic units found:
      • Computing: 35
      • Response: 16
      • Emulation: 0

You have received 10 upgrade points [UP] which can be allocated in all module categories

Equipment function is restored

  • A new skill slot is available in Equipment
  • A new ability slot is available in Equipment

Skill function is restored

  • New skill awarded for leveling up: [Edge]

Abilities function is restored

  • Abilities unlocked: [Final Discharge]

Verifying unit level… error

  • Unable to verify due to manual calibration is in progress

The sensation of leveling up was indescribable. Ares could feel this ‘lifeforce’ — whatever it was — flowing through his broken-down physical form and rejuvenating his spirit, if not his actual body. Breathing deeply, ignoring the thought of redundancy every time he did so, Ares opened and closed his eyes in synchrony with the pulsating beat of the experience. Like the tide, the sensation slowly receded, leaving him feeling lighter and stronger than before. Whatever this lifeforce was, he wanted more.

He took some more time to look through his options. His upgrade had done more than simply give him new powers — he was now also able to open up an entire settings menu that had not been available before. He found the Module menu, and immediately allocated the first five points into the only category that had none.

As a first choice, Emulation was perhaps not the most obvious. It seemed like the system automatically neglected the stat, which begged the question of ‘why is it even here, then?’ With every point he put into the option, Ares experienced a slight tickle to his mind. It was as if small ants had begun working the insides of his skull, connecting his fleeting understanding of himself to this new body. Though not uncomfortable, the sensation was unfamiliar to the common sense retained from his biological existence.

As the probing intensified, Ares decided this was what he needed. Being overwhelmed by the body’s instinct was not acceptable, and this seemed like the first step on the way of control. An added bonus was that his face began to respond to his will, literally emulating expressions. Only slight movements, even when he put all of his points into the category, but it was enough to be worth it; there was no point in a second life if you could not really feel anything.

Next he opened up his Equipment menu, which was highly restricted and convoluted. Whatever this menu did, it did not register the belt and the little axe he carried. Seeing this, Ares considered why he had not used said axe in the fight. Not that he had really needed it; indeed, his body was much stronger than the little instrument was. When he, following this, looked into the Skills menu, whatever value the axe might have had as a weapon might became redundant.

[Edge]

The user has been initiated in the art of manipulating Lifeweave, allowing for the formation of sharp edges on any part of the unit exterior. Mastery allows for longer, simultaneous, and more energy efficient edges.

The skill had a lot of promise, and of course Ares immediately equipped it. He spent the next ten minutes playing around with forming sharp edges on different part of his bodies, until he got a flashing message from the console warning him about low energy reserves.

Finally, he opened up the Abilities menu, which was perhaps the most disappointing of all. In the menu, he could scroll down through a massive list of ‘???’, until he came to the very last entry, the only one that was eligible.

[Final discharge]

The unit unleashes all of its energy at once, opening up a pathway for pure magical energies to purge its surroundings in a radius equivalent to the level of energy discharged.

Warning: The unit will immediately shut down afterward and user session will be forcibly terminated. Use with extreme caution.

Great, he thought, rolling his eyes, just what I needed: a useless ability.

Still, he supposed it was better than nothing. He had a slot open, and nothing else to place there anyway, and so he equipped it.

He wondered briefly at the distinction between skill and ability, considering they seemed similar. He looked around for a ‘help’ menu, but was unsuccessful. He had gained more choice of configuration after leveling up, but it was clear that he needed more levels if he wanted to understand his situation fully.

Done with maintenance and repairs, Ares stood back up and looked to Sloan’s progress. The halfling had only just finished bleeding the first wolf in order to prepare it for cutting. When he walked over to the make-shift butchery, Sloan looked up and wiped his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand. He had a small carving knife for the job, but it was obviously slow going.

“I’m sorry for the delay, master Ares,” said the halfling, trying to smile amicably while being smeared with blood, “My tools are just not really for skinning…”

“Show me how to do it and I will help,” wrote Ares. The halfling looked at him with a strange expression, then shrugged and showed Ares how to cut up the animal vertically across the belly and remove all the innards. Even without a gag reflex, Ares decided it simply was not worth to eat these raw, no matter how much energy he would get in return. Using his hands, Ares dug a pit in the ground for disposing of the waste, before they continued to gently ease the skin off the flesh.

This was where Ares could truly shine. Armed with [Edge] his progress was fast, allowing him to skin the creature in a matter of minutes using only his sharpened hands. Once done with the skinning, Ares followed Sloan’s instructions and separated the carcass into different different cuts, allowing for easier curing and storage. “I think I have enough salt for this one, but if I cure any more than this, I won’t have any salt for making food,” said Sloan, looking apologetically at Ares. Shrugging, Ares watched as the halfling smeared the meat with a thick layer of salt, retrieved from the enormous backpack he kept in camp.

“I’m sorry for asking, master Ares, but could you dig another hole? Burying the salted meat will allow it to keep for longer.” Though he felt something in the body resist following the orders of others, Ares overruled the sensation and willingly dug another hole for the salted meat. This left the remaining wolves for his immediate consumption. Although raw, Ares did not foresee any stomach issues — a mechanical body sure was an advantage at times. They skinned the wolves in a similar manner, and Ares ate the three large bodies in one sitting, amazed at being able to contain it all.

His energy rose back up to 40 percent, meaning three whole wolves were only worth as much as a single dish from Sloan. Either cooking had more effect on amount of energy contained in foodstuffs than the laws of physics allowed for, or this was due to whatever the halfling had done to the meal before serving. Curious, Ares asked the cook for his secret. “Oh, you mean the essence I added,” said the halfling, strangely happy to divulge, “It’s my halfling heritage, see?”

He picked up a potato and split it in half, offering one to Ares. Without hesitating, Ares took the half and threw it in his mouth, barely receiving half a quarter point of energy from it. “Now, try this one,” said Sloan, once more waving his finger over the food, letting streamers of green energy infuse the potato. Ares took it and ate it, surprised at the difference in taste. The former half had tasted as tart as expected, but this one tasted like it had been at least half-way boiled. The energy he received from it was also a surprising half a point.

That was a 100% increase in output between the first and latter half — which could not be explained by whatever meager difference there might have been in their size. “Impressive,” Ares wrote, “How do you do it?”

“It’s the essence of my lifeforce,” said Sloan, who had grown a wide grin from watching Ares eat, “We halflings usually have essence related to food or the preparation thereof. I call mine the ‘Finishing Touch’, it makes whatever I prepare almost twice as tasty and keeps you fed for twice as long.”

So, that green stuff must be this ‘lifeforce’, Ares thought, stroking his chin, then, the lifeforce that allowed me to level up came from killing the wolves and absorbing theirs. That kinda makes Sloan an especially tempting snack